Fathoming a new product from IBM via a launch event is like trying to understand the ocean by watching a wave. Nonetheless that was my task, swimming through the presentations and ultimately landing an interview with Jeffrey Schick, IBM's VP of Social Software. Drenched in the vision Schick shared for the IBM Customer Experience Suite , it occurred to me that IBM could end up being more important to the business use and monetization of social media than Facebook.
While the comparison between IBM's new social software solutions and Facebook could be considered all wet from the start, the mere fact that I'm discussing both in the same sentence should make you take notice. IBM is not sitting idly on the dock as web and mobile usage transform business interactions. Rather they intend to ride the wave of Web 3.0, creating and implementing the software that according to Schick, "can better connect people with people and people with information."
Social software is not a new idea at IBM
Long before Mark Zuckerberg aggregated his Harvard friends online, IBM'ers could find their colleagues in a similar manner. According to Schick, "at IBM 15 years ago, we had a way to look up people to create a globally connected enterprise." "Today we have approximately 500,000 people within IBM and we do about 6 million look ups a day on pages that look strikingly similar to other social network profile pages with features like blogging and photo posting," added Schick.
IBM's internal network served as both an incubator and torture test for its latest offering. "The idea of getting the right person over the right time at the right opportunity and yield the right result was really important," explained Schick. So while Schick and his team watched the rise of Facebook with interest, they took greater inspiration from the technology they were already using to deliver "an exceptional work experience for employees" which also translated into better client service.
Social software for business that is as easy as Facebook
Recognizing how simple it is to publish on the web today, IBM aims to make their social software tools as easy to use as social networks like Facebook. Acknowledging the early adoption of social technology by kids, Schick noted, "now I say this stuff is so easy us old people can use it!" This simplicity of use has fundamental implications for business, "making a tremendous difference in the way that people can collaborate and share information," added Schick.
The emphasis on ease of use also means that IBM may be able to address some of the needs of small and medium size businesses with its new offering. By taking the capabilities they've created for big companies and putting them on the cloud, smaller businesses may indeed be able to leverage these services and according to Schick, "easily create a community that would allow them to invite their clients and engage them."
Reaching for more than 500 million "likes"
While pundits debate the value of a Facebook fan, IBM has no doubt about the value of its new social software portfolio. In addition to using the software to "build better client and employee relations," Schick expects that "people can get genuine business value [from it]." While dialog is important, all of this, according to Schick, "is done to drive revenue, to create better customer satisfaction and gain some competitive advantage."
And though IBM calls its Customer Experience Suite "new," they are already touting case histories that prove its merit. Schick explained how the relatively small Practicing Law Institute  is "leveraging the web to create communities to better engage their attorneys that take their classes." He also explained how a large construction firm, "created a web experience that allowed them to hear the types of homes they should be building."
Being a social organization is more than being on a social network
Though Facebook is the reigning social network, it is simply a ripple in the ocean of IBM's vision for the new social organization. Businesses of all sizes need to think social across their intranets, extranets, the internet itself and the emerging mobile marketplace. Whether it's about sharing information internally, with clients in a walled garden, or with prospects on their cellphones, "social is an important dimension and critical to what we're doing," explained Schick.
Recognizing that the social tsunami could be a bit overwhelming to its customers, IBM also tried to use itself as an example, employing a range of external and internal social tools at the launch event and online. Attendees were encouraged to tweet using the hash tag #IBMexperience while the event was streamed live online. All of the launch-related content was shown in real-time  using IBM's social media aggregator providing proof positive that IBM was indeed practicing what it preached.
Final Note: Regardless of your business size, IBM's big move into social software should be a clear indication that every business needs a broad-reaching social strategy not just a Facebook fan page! This strategy needs to address the needs of your customers and your employees, ensuring optimal collaboration between them anytime and anywhere.